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CUNY and the Erosion of Public Higher Education

Faculty, staff, and students must work together to save higher education.
By Marcella Bencivenni

The crisis of CUNY, the City University of New York, has finally entered the public arena. As David Chen pointed out in a May 2016 article in the New York Times, and as many others have observed, conditions at CUNY have become untenable: buildings are falling apart; mice and roaches are common; ceilings leak; elevators and bathrooms don’t work.

It’s not just the infrastructure that’s decaying; teaching, working, and learning conditions have also worsened significantly over the last decade. Increased class sizes and faculty workload, limited office space, outdated equipment and labs, faculty and staff cuts, hiring freezes, reliance on low-paid part-time faculty on contingent appointments, and reduced student services are making it impossible to provide students with an enriching academic experience. Meanwhile, enrollment continues to climb. Complicating matters even further, until summer 2016, CUNY was locked in a battle between the administration, the union, and lawmakers in Albany over a new contract for faculty and staff, who have been working without a raise since 2010.

Students and faculty have repeatedly called attention to CUNY’s crisis. To build public and political support, CUNY’s AAUP-affiliated union, known as the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), launched a massive organizing campaign that included intense lobbying of local legislators, mass rallies, teach-ins, and disruptive actions that resulted in the arrests of fifty-two members. Escalating the struggle, in May 2016 PSC members overwhelmingly voted to authorize the union’s executive council to call a strike if the contract dispute was not resolved, despite a New York State statute, the Taylor Law, that forbids strikes by public employees.

A deal was eventually reached in mid-June with the assistance of a mediator assigned by the State Public Employment Relations Board after CUNY management declared an impasse in negotiations last January. The new contract provides 10.41 percent in compounded salary increases for full-time faculty, opportunities for advances in pay and title for professional staff, and some increased benefits for part-time faculty. While this settlement represents a significant victory in a time of enforced austerity for public workers, CUNY’s struggle over high-quality education and decent pay for all its employees is far from over.

Indeed, the CUNY crisis is representative of a growing disinvestment in public higher education that requires greater attention. State after state has reduced support for public education. Administrators, who are increasingly drawn from the corporate sector, have generally responded by raising tuition, increasing class sizes, and eliminating services and programs—asking faculty and staff to do more with less while simultaneously expanding the number and the salaries of executives.

Historical Background

CUNY has a long and proud history that goes back to 1847, when the Free Academy of the City of New York (renamed the College of the City of New York in 1866) was established “to provide children of immigrants and the poor access to free higher education based on academic merit.” “The experiment is to be tried,” proclaimed the Free Academy’s first president, Horace Webster, in 1849, “whether the children of the people, the children of the whole people, can be educated; and whether an institution of the highest grade, can be successfully controlled by the popular will, not by the privileged few.”

By 1961, the educational experiment that began with the Free Academy had successfully expanded into a modern integrated university system with seven municipal colleges, 91,000 students, and some 2,200 full-time teachers. The system was overseen by a board of higher education, forerunner of the current board of trustees, which in 1963 appointed its first chancellor to manage and coordinate CUNY’s widening constellation of schools. At the time, the system was largely funded by the city and remained tuition-free, with students paying only for courses taken as part-time and nonmatriculated students, at community colleges, or in graduate programs. City, Hunter, Brooklyn, and Queens Colleges had stellar reputations and for many years attracted the city’s most ambitious students.

A booming city population and the opening of admissions to all after 1969 led to further expansion, eventually transforming CUNY into the largest urban university system in the nation. Funding began to shift from the city to the state, with student tuition, which was introduced for all matriculated students in 1976, increasingly supplementing the total budget. Today, CUNY has twenty-four campuses—eleven senior colleges, seven community colleges, an honors college, a graduate school, a law school, a professional school, a biomedical education school, and a school of journalism. Together they enroll more than 470,000 students (270,000 in credit-bearing programs and some 200,000 in continuing and professional education).

Undergraduate tuition at CUNY for New York state residents is currently $6,330 per year at the senior colleges and $4,800 at the community colleges; students are also required to pay technology and activities fees ranging from $200 to $475 per semester. While these figures are relatively small compared to the national average rates at public universities (estimated at $9,410), CUNY students are disproportionately affected by tuition fees because of the exorbitant costs of living in New York City. The overwhelming majority of CUNY students (74 percent) are people of color, many from working-class and poor families. Most must work to make ends meet, and many also have young children to support. It is no coincidence that recent years have seen an explosion of enrollment in the community colleges, which offer more generous financial aid and charge lower tuition. At Hostos Community College, for example, enrollment has almost doubled since I began teaching there in 2004, jumping from 4,000 students to more than 7,000 today.

Culture of Austerity

These growing challenges notwithstanding, CUNY remains committed to its historic mission of providing all New Yorkers with both access to and excellence in higher education. As Michelle Obama noted in her commencement address to last year’s graduates of City College, CUNY students are “living, breathing proof that the American dream endures.” CUNY can be life changing, as many student success stories attest, a place to explore, question, grow, and mature, opening a door to new possibilities and experiences through what Jeanne Theoharis, a distinguished professor at Brooklyn College, described as “the magic of the CUNY classroom.” The belief that CUNY represents a unique pathway to democracy, opportunity, intellectual inquiry, and civic engagement is what motivates many CUNY faculty.

But we are working in increasingly difficult conditions. The system has always been under budgetary and economic pressures, but the situation today is extremely precarious because of steep budget cuts. Since the 1990s the proportion of state aid to the senior colleges’ operating budgets has dropped from 74 to 53 percent, while tuition has risen from 21 to 46 percent. Similarly, for the community colleges, the share of the budget paid by funds from the state and the city has decreased from 78 percent to 55 percent, with tuition in turn increasing from 22 percent to 45 percent. Albany’s refusal to maintain funding to cover basic costs for CUNY even as the state enjoys a $12 billion surplus continues to put its public higher education system in a vulnerable position.

The detrimental effects of this culture of austerity are well-known. Despite record student enrollments, the number of full-time professors at CUNY has fallen from around 11,000 in 1975 to 7,700 today, out of a workforce of about 45,000 employees. The overwhelming majority of classes are currently taught by part-time faculty who are paid by the credit hour (and only for hours spent in the classroom); they earn an average of $3,500 per course (for a maximum of four courses per semester) and have no job security and few benefits. There are currently more than 11,000 part-time faculty members; they make up nearly 60 percent of all faculty.

Like other public universities, CUNY has a two-tier labor system that is divisive, damaging, and unfair. Demoralized by the lack of progress on salary equity, part-time faculty feel increasingly abandoned and marginalized. While the new contract will allow them to receive three-year appointments, it does nothing to correct the pay disparity between part-time and fulltime faculty. Despite their higher salaries and better benefits, full-time faculty are also affected negatively by this system, as student advisement, committee work, and departmental tasks fall increasingly and disproportionately on a shrinking number of full-time faculty members.

Another undeniable result of austerity is increased workload for faculty and staff. The full-time teaching load at CUNY (seven courses per year at senior colleges and nine courses at the community colleges), coupled with growing class sizes, has become untenable and is undermining educational quality. Full-time faculty are also expected to attend mandatory seminars and meetings, conduct assessment, participate in professional development, and serve on an ever-increasing number of committees and task forces, particularly during the tenure process and generally without reassigned time. And, of course, faculty, especially those in the senior colleges, but increasingly also those in the community colleges, are expected to conduct research and publish.

Departmental chairs and program directors are also being asked to do a lot more with a lot less. Faced with budgetary cuts and more administrative demands, in addition to supervising the work of their faculty and staff and ensuring the smooth operation of their programs, they must deal with logistical issues and ever-increasing bureaucracy. Their lives are consumed more and more by meetings and paperwork, leaving little or no time for actual and meaningful leadership.

Despite the recent raises, CUNY teaching salaries remain, with a few exceptions (mostly in the graduate schools), noncompetitive; they certainly are not commensurate with the rising costs of living in New York City, which have increased by 23 percent since the last salary increase went into effect in 2009. Whereas a teaching position at CUNY in the past ensured a dignified life and the possibility of purchasing an apartment or home, this is an impossible dream for current faculty. Conditions are particularly demoralizing for faculty hired in the lecturer lines, who are precluded from promotion to higher ranks and higher salaries.

Students, too, face incredible challenges: at a teach-in I led at my campus in October 2015, students expressed dissatisfaction with the registration system, canceled classes, lack of support and resources, and the rising cost of pursuing higher education— not only because of increasing tuition, but also because of the growing cost of transportation, rent, utilities, books, and the food in the cafeteria. They desperately want to learn and improve their lives, but inadequate resources, compounded by deficient primary education, limited finances, and a wide range of family and personal problems, often keep them from succeeding.

Yet, as Chancellor James B. Milliken has often noted, even in the face of decaying infrastructure, budget cuts, and strained resources, CUNY continues to thrive. My college was one of ten finalists for the 2015 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, the nation’s preeminent recognition of high achievement and performance in community colleges. This year it finished first among mid-sized community colleges in a national survey on technology capabilities and initiatives. Two of our professors have won the New York State Professor of the Year award, and many other faculty members have received competitive fellowships and grants. CUNY, indeed, features many illustrious scholars and internationally acclaimed experts.

CUNY graduates, too, have distinguished themselves with many national awards, including thirteen Nobel Prizes, and have been accepted into prestigious programs and schools. Over and over students say that CUNY changed their lives, opening up a future they never before thought possible.

But the problems and obstacles that CUNY confronts today cannot be understated: what’s happening at CUNY is part of a larger ideologically and politically driven national trend led by the business class to reduce spending on public services such as education, infrastructure, and health care; lower labor costs; undermine job security; and curtail unions. As Anthony Paul Farley, a professor at Albany Law School, put it in his article in the November–December 2016 issue of Academe, everything that can be measured (and often also what cannot be measured) is measured. Under the new “business model,” higher education is essentially reduced to an exchange of commonplaces: “professors become vendors, and students become customers.” The election of Donald Trump is unfortunately likely to strengthen this trend and erode even further the core idea of the public university as a common good accessible to all. Even worse, Trump’s divisive and disparaging comments about minorities, immigrants, and women, and his denial of climate change, represent a serious threat to higher education’s pursuit of knowledge and its historic mission to provide an equitable and welcoming environment for all who seek an enriching educational experience.


As many educators and community activists have warned, the erosion of public education will have catastrophic consequences for the most vulnerable and needy Americans. Administrators, faculty, and students need to work together with allies, both inside and outside of academia, to fight this culture of austerity—and the economic and racial inequality it produces—by demanding proper funding for public education. Educators and legislators must also take a closer look at existing policies and structures and implement institutional reforms that truly benefit students.

We need to challenge the growing and systematic imbalance between educational needs and budgeted allocations. We must put an end to the alarming increase of highly paid administrators and their misplaced priorities, restoring an educational system in which students and teachers are at the center of the decision-making process. We must also fight contingency and the growing exploitation of part-time faculty, demanding pay equity and decent salaries for all. We need more transparency and accountability, less bureaucracy, and more efficiency. We need bold and inspirational leaders committed to the real mission of public universities—compassionate and humble administrators who listen to, and understand, the teachers and the students they serve, who propose rather than impose, who are driven by visions and not ambition.

We need more real support for our students, starting with a radical reform of the current financial aid policy, which forces undergraduate students to take a full-time class schedule in order to receive aid. We also need a fairer and more efficient tuition plan with graduated fees based on family incomes and full scholarships that provide not only tuition but also money for books, transportation, and food for our poorest students.

We don’t need other educational reforms (which somehow always seem to make things worse), new assessment plans, or “developmental” training. Faculty members need more time to do what we are supposed to do: teach, conduct research, and mentor students. More than anything else, we must reinvest in public education and affirm our commitment to make academic excellence accessible to all, from preschool through college. As Gustave Rosenberg, the chair of the board of higher education, eloquently affirmed in 1920, “In a democratic society, the higher reaches of education should not be the exclusive privilege of an elite, but an opportunity and a necessity for all qualified citizens who desire it, regardless of race, creed or color.”

The ongoing struggle at CUNY suggests that this vision can be realized only when faculty, staff, and students (and administrators, too) collectively mobilize, organize, and challenge the status quo. Combating the neoliberal structures of public education and their austerity policies is the only viable way to bring real change and restore the historic mission of public universities. If lawmakers and politicians are serious about their promise of reducing economic inequality, they cannot ignore the crisis of public higher education. They must reinvest in our institutions; the real issue is policy, not resources.

Marcella Bencivenni is associate professor of history at CUNY Hostos Community College. She is the author of Italian Immigrant Radical Culture: The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States (2011) and coeditor of “Radical Perspectives on Immigration,” a special issue of the journal Socialism and Democracy (2008). She is also editor of the Italian American Review and secretary of her campus’s union chapter. Her e-mail address is [email protected].


Prof. Bencivenni is absolutely correct. What she doesn't mention is how disinvestment has encouraged the growing dependence on foundation and private corporate monies that then influence how the money is spent. And there are large budgetary allocations for grant-writing and fundraising. Thus we see the colleges' turning their focus from disciplinary knowledge to temporary educational trends or corporate PR. It's a national problem but especially wrong-headed for a public university supposedly devoted to the public good.

Another article in this issue of Academe focuses on the concern you raise in your comment. See Martha T. McCluskey's article, "Following the Money in Public Higher Education Foundations."

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